We pass on now to consider a new set of criticisms of considerably greater interest. They necessitate, however, some few words of introduction.
I have not disguised my conviction that the capacity for putting forth will-effort or will-energy is, whether ultimately defensible or not, a quite necessary condition of 'moral responsibility.' A person cannot be held morally accountable for anything save in so far as he is the real or ultimate cause of it. Now if we disallow this capacity to put forth will-effort, there seems no sense in which man can be said to be the ultimate cause of his acts. The capacity for will-effort is that which makes possible action against the line of least resistance, action in the line of a felt weaker (but believed higher) desire. If there were no such capacity for reinforcing a higher but weaker desire against a lower but stronger desire, all action would of necessity follow the bias of the agent's existing conative tendencies. We should thus be saddled with a psychological determinism, which seems to leave no room for moral responsibility. And, since the 'conative tendencies' here are just the consequences of 'nature + nurture,' and since the 'nature' in question is just as much 'given' to the agent, though in a different way, as is his 'nurture,' there can be no question of the agent ever being an ultimate cause of anything. Granted, however, the conscious capacity to put forth will-energy in the service of the weaker but higher desire, the self can be regarded as an ultimate cause. He is certainly never the total cause. But wherever there is the recognised contrast between weaker but higher desire and stronger but lower desire, it will depend upon him here and now whether, or how far, the moral effort is made, and what 'act' therefore takes place. In this, as I think perfectly intelligible, sense the self can, on the hypothesis of the capacity for will-effort, be viewed as an 'ultimate cause.' He will, quite justly, be held 'responsible' for this act, since it did rest with him here and now which act he performed.1 Ultimately moral responsibility is just responsibility for the use which we make of our capacity for will-effort. We can, strictly speaking, be 'accountable' for nothing else but this, for nothing else but this is wholly within our own power.
But is will-energy something that is indefeasibly the self's own? Is it something for whose expenditure the self is solely and absolutely responsible? It is here that the critic will join issue with us, even the critic who may be sympathetically disposed to the general notion of 'effort of will.' He will tell us that such a theory cannot be reconciled with the known facts. For is it not a known fact, for example, that some persons are endowed by nature with less 'will-power' than others? They are born with weak wills (just as some other persons are born with strong wills) and are inherently incapable of putting up a stout resistance to 'temptation.' And if this apparent fact of diverse natural endowment is accepted, the self is not wholly accountable for the degree of will-energy which it exerts.
Or again, is it not a 'known fact' (it may be asked) that the capacity for energising is decisively modifiable by external conditions also? What, for example, of the captive who is slowly starved into betrayal of a secret? Is this not a matter of failing will-power, brought about by specific physical conditions? But if this is so, the capacity for energising is not indefeasibly the self's own, and you will have to look elsewhere than to 'will-energy' in your search for something for which the self is solely accountable.
1 This statement is not to be understood as denying that circumstances beyond the agent's control (e.g. the relative power of his congenital tendencies) have much indirect influence upon the act - determining in large measure the ease or difficulty of 'rising to duty.' Considerations of this nature will rightly be taken into account in assigning praise and blame, even though the self in volition is, in the sense above indicated, the 'ultimate cause' of its act. In Chapter VII (The Principle Of Moral Valuation. Section 1. Moral Valuation And 'The Moral End'). my position in this matter will be fully expounded.
These criticisms are certainly very serious, if they can be sustained. And they do rest upon 'facts' frequently supposed to be beyond dispute. I think, however, that if we look closer we shall see that the supposed 'facts' - native diversity of willpower, and external modifiability of will-power - are really misinterpretations of certain observed phenomena.
Let me try to make this out first of all with regard to the supposed fact that men are endowed by nature with different degrees of will-power.
What is the evidence for this alleged diversity? Presumably it is not the (undeniable) fact that some men actually do exert less will-energy than others. That fact allows no inference to a diverse capacity for expenditure. Wide variation is, indeed, just what we should naturally expect to find. In the case of one's own experience, one is conscious of very different levels of achievement at different times, but one never dreams of supposing this diversity to be incompatible with an identical capacity throughout. The point, however, is too obvious to labour. There must be solider grounds than this for a view so commonly accepted. And I do not think we shall be far astray if we find these grounds in the phenomena of 'congenital dispositions,' the consideration of which may very easily provoke an erroneous inference as to the nature of will-power.
To see this, let us take as an example two men A and B, of whom A is afflicted with a strong inherited disposition to alcohol, while B is in this respect an average being. Very likely we find A yielding to an extravagant craving for alcohol, even although he may be acutely aware that thereby he is heading towards the destruction of all that he most deeply values. Now we are apt to say, in such cases, that A 'seems to have no will-power, where alcohol is concerned,' and to contrast him in this respect with B, who keeps under control a normal taste for this particular stimulant. But, if we look closer, we find that the facts do not warrant the inference that A has less will-power than B in respect of this object of desire, nor even the inference that A is less active than B in the actual exertion of will-energy. For we have to remember that A's alcoholic bias being much stronger, a much greater effort of will is required of A than of B to keep these tendencies within 'respectable' bounds. For this reason A will be less likely than B to achieve an externally satisfactory result, even on the hypothesis that their respective will-capacities are identical. Accordingly there is no need to interpret the appearances, which do admittedly force upon us the conclusion that A is much more likely than B to become a drunkard, as meaning that A has 'less will-power' than B, even with respect to alcoholic indulgence. The 'likelihood' in question obtains, not because A has less will-power than B, but because he has a much stronger resistance to overcome.